Sunday, January 16, 2011

The End of Truth: Odd Musings from the CRTC

The title is not meant to be a cry of panic. With all of the events that have kicked off 2011, there are enough cries and shouts echoing in the streets of Tunis, Budapest and Tuscon for a bit of calm reflection to be duly welcome.

If the navel-gazing in the United States in the aftermath of the shootings in Arizona is an indication of anything, it is that there ought to be truth and balance in broadcast journalism. While Truth is too intangible at times to be contained in the certitudes that people cling to in the face of uncertainties like the ones facing the world today. The pursuit and discovery of truth will come from the willingness to move away from those certitudes and accept the challenge of sober scrutiny of what people say they believe.

Canada's Accurate News and Information Act is being revised by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which is openly musing about easing the ban on broadcasting false or misleading news. While the amendment is meant to further ensure freedom of speech and only proposes the ban of "any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public," the amendment creates enough wiggle room for broadcasters to play in if they choose to indulge in the troublesome indifference to reason and sound argument that has had such free rein in the United States and which the mischief Kory Teneycke and his colleagues at Sun TV seem to be promising with their right-wing perspective of events.

The failure to engage in dialogue and to critically assess our beliefs and our foundations for those beliefs is a significant contribution to the tensions that exist in the United States. It is becoming evident that the US has bifurcated itself into separate communities of beliefs. Suburbanization, the internet and other tools that allow people to pick and choose the environments they live, work and interact in and the mindsets of the people one associates with fosters an environment where competing falsehoods are given life and are sustained by reflexive sycophancy surrounding untested certitudes about immigrants, creationism and sexual orientation to name just a few subjects people polarize themselves around.

The freedom of speech is a right that ought not be questioned, but as with all freedoms there is a responsibility to strive for truth and to participate in a civil dialogue with people holding opposing viewpoints. Letting broadcasters - which are far different corporate entities than the ones who were originally restrained by the Fairness Doctrine and the Accurate News and Information Act - operate with more latitude to interpret what is true, accurate, misleading or even safe is a further devolution of governance over the civic dialogue to organizations who stand to benefit from it while they are showing less willingness and capability for exercising the sense of responsibility to go with it.

Canadians need only look south to ponder the potential consequences. The end of truth ought to be the establishment of civic spaces where diversity of opinion and lifestyle can coexist in one place rather and the borders that people establish to divide one another melt under a harsh critical light.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

21st Century Bowdlerizing and Huck Finn

I kicked off the New Year, 2011, by revisiting Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for the first time in 25 years. It was bracing to sit down with that hefty novella and re-examine those pages through fresh eyes. Among other things it was interesting to find myself examining the story in light of current practices and thoughts about social sustainability. To see the contradiction between the colonials' claims and practices provided a refreshing take on the story. In the end, I affirmed my belief that regardless of the historicist lens literature is examined through, certain principles that remain and others whither under the weight of their own hypocrisy.

Four days into this New Year, however, I'm left scratching my head at revisions that are being done to a new edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The most controversial is the elimination of the N-word, which, ironically enough I saw throughout Heart of Darkness. The hue and cry against the change is easy enough to document and it is well justified to defend the retention of the N-word in the book. In the end the current revision of the book will merely serve as an alternate and the original will stand as an artifact and a document of the era it portrayed and comes from. This is not the first time that literature has met the ignominious gobs of liquid paper and henscratch of those who critique and kowtow rather than create. That is how the word bowdlerize gained its entree into the English language some 200 years ago and I would happily propose that Alan Gribben who has bent to somebody's will to grace readers with this new version.

I side with those offended by the revision of the book. To take the comparison of Conrad and Twain for a moment I would add that Twain, despite his pith, humour and survival of obituaries, was a passionate, engaged writer aware of the flaws of the country and society he grew up and lived in. Twain's work, regardless of his repute, ought to be treated as serious work. He did not use the N-word anymore recklessly than Conrad did. The presence of the word in Huckleberry Finn not only documents the era more accurately than the Gribbenized text but it spares readers the cheap certitude that a "clean" version of the book tries to foist on readers.

The desire to revise Huck Finn to eliminate the troubling questions that the N-word raises, and few contexts would better frame the discussion of the word and a few of the myriad issues associated with it. Given the opportunity, more and more people give into the impulse to pull their horizons in a little and limit the opportunity to engage in discourse. Those most actively religious are more prone to fundamentalist impulses than a progressive thoughtful practice the heeds the call to love neighbours and treat one another as one wishes to be treated. Instead of such informed pluralism there are sordid spectacles of malformed righteousness - each occurrence a consequence of the failure to dialogue and unstop our ears to any threat to our illusions.

The Gribbenized version of Huck will be an artifact of this era and evidence of our failure to dialogue. Given that it is among the first milestones of mature readership, the unwillingness to address questions the N-word might pose makes it an artifact of a time when we choose not to prepare the young with the grasp of the world to deal with the uncertainties that are our reality.